THEATER REVIEW: “Day of Absence” @ Karamu by Roy Berko

Through Sun 11/18

As Douglas Turner Ward, the author of Day of Absence, explains it, “The time is now. The play opens in an unnamed Southern town of medium population on a somnolent cracker morning — meaning no matter the early temperature, it’s gonna get hot. The hamlet is just beginning to rouse itself from the sleepy lassitude of night.”

What follows is the revelation that all the black people in this imaginary Southern town have suddenly disappeared.

Ward continues, “The only ones left are sick and lying in hospital beds, refusing to get well. Infants are crying because they are being tended to by strange parents. The Mayor pleads for the President, Governor, and the NAACP to send him ‘a jackpot of jigaboos.’ On a nationwide radio network, he calls on the blacks, wherever they are, to come back. He shows them the cloths with which they wash cars and the brushes with which they shine shoes as sentimental reminders of the goodies that await them. In the end the blacks begin to reappear, as mysteriously as they had vanished, and the white community, sobered by what has transpired, breathes a sigh of relief at the return of the rather uneasy status quo. What will happen next is left unsaid, but the suggestion is strong that things will never quite be the same again.”

The play, if applied to today, would be a Trump nightmare. Yes, though Trump rages against minorities, how would he operate his hotels and resorts if all those people he hates and wants to expel, or not let into the country, disappeared? Would Donald, Jr. be cutting the lawns at the golf courses? Would Ivanka be changing the hotel’s bed linens? Would son-in-law Jared be caddying?

Yes, this is a play which not only targets Southern bigots and other nationalists, who use the services of minorities while condemning them, but also points to the reality of what would happen without the slave and low-paid members of the minority “working class.”

In talking about how the play should be produced, Ward states, “No scenery is necessary — only actors shifting in and out on an almost bare stage and freezing into immobility as focuses change or blackouts occur. The play is conceived for performance by a Negro cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white face. Logically, it might also be performed by whites — at their own risk. If any producer is faced with choosing between opposite hues, the author strongly suggests: “Go ’long wit’ the blacks — besides all else, they need the work more. All props, except essential items (chairs, brooms, rags, mop, debris) should be imaginary (phones, switchboard, mikes, eating utensils, food, etc.).”

Not only did Karamu director Nathan A. Lilly ignore Ward’s advice on scenery and props but he failed to heed that the actors are “cautioned not to ham it up too broadly. It just might be more effective if they aspire for serious tragedy.”

Lilly has played for laughs, ignoring that the play is a satirical farce. In good farce, such as classics like The Importance of Being Earnest, actors play it straight. The audience should not be laughing at the ridiculousness of the performers as they overact and do slapstick, they should be laughing at the outrageousness of the situation and lines. Otherwise, the message is lost.

The cast tries hard. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, their efforts are lost as they look foolish due to overacting. The exceptions are a marvelous monologue near the end of the play, presented by Robert Hunter, the mayor. By playing it straight, Ward’s message rings clear. The same could be said for Sherrie Tolliver, in her role as the TV announcer.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Day of Absence is a well-written play whose message rings loud and clear today in the era of “Make America White Again.” Too bad some of the message is lost due to an emphasis on over-done acting rather than letting the farcical writing carry the day.

 Day of Absence continues through Sun 11/18 in the Arena Theatre at Karamu. For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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